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Nelson Music Room, Duke University, Sunday, October 24: It is refreshing to go to a concert where most of the program is unfamiliar. We can thank violinist Hsiao-mei Ku of the Ciompi Quartet and violist Yoram Youngerman, currently on the Music faculty of ECU for digging up a delightful set of violin and viola duos for their Sunday evening concert.
Such duos are a novelty today, but in the Classical era they were quite common. The best known by far are the two by Mozart, K.423 and 424, which he composed in Salzburg in 1783 as help to his colleague, Michael Haydn. Ku and Youngerman performed the second, in B-flat Major, and from the outset their performance, throughout the concert, was a model of good balance, good intonation and a sense of fun.
Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1959) spent the war years in this country and, in addition to a list of weighty compositions, wrote a series of small intimate pieces for his friends and colleagues, which he called "madrigals" The best-known are the Five Madrigal Stanzas for violin and piano composed in 1943 for amateur violinist Albert Einstein and professional pianist Robert Casadesus. In 1947 he wrote Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola for violinist Joseph Fuchs and his sister, violist Lillian Fuchs, a technically challenging but musically not very interesting work. The second movement, andante is especially overlong.
The rest of the program was given to two charming works by essentially unknown composers. René Bernier (1905-1984) was a Belgian composer and professor of music history. His charming Sonatina for Violin and Viola is technically demanding and French in tone. The warm performance was marked by an exceptionally well balanced give and take, especially in the Rondino last movement.
Alessandro Rolla (1757-1841) was a violinist, violist, conductor and teacher in various towns in Northern Italy. He was a great champion of Beethoven and a friend of Paganini, among others. As teacher of both violin and viola, he enriched the literature with a flood of duos: 126 for two violins, 78 for violin and viola, 32 for two violas, and many others for various instruments, including 10 for two clarinets.
Rolla must have been a perceptive pedagogue, who knew that the best way to engage students is by introducing an element of fun into the musical lessons. His Duo Concertante for Violin and Viola is technically demanding, with the viola at times straining to be the soprano voice while the violin sings tenor. But rather than being the usual dry pedagogical exercise, the music sounded like a transcription of duets from Rossini comic operas.
The hallmark of all the duos on the program was a constant give and take between the two performers. Ku commented from the stage that as Second Violin of the Ciompi Quartet, she has to perform what the Quartet decides, but when she prepares a recital, she's going to have some fun; to which Youngerman nodded his head. It was clear from the performance that both had a ball.